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23Dec2014

Our Friend in the West: Comment by Laura Marshall for Royal Television Society

Icon Films is based in Bristol, and this febrile, effervescent hub out south west is a fine place to be an indie. It's a dichotomous city, considered conservative and prosperous (think tobacco, Ministry of Defence and banking), but with a long history of innovation and dissent (think Cabot, Brunel and Wesley).

Bristol is home to some of the most innovative companies and institutions in the land. Quantum physicists and playwrights mingle here, using the formal and informal networks that exist – and, through this restless connectivity and constant hubbub, comes great work.

Independence is valued and encouraged – indeed, our elected mayor is an independent – and we have a Bristol Independence Day to celebrate independent traders. We even have our own currency, the Bristol Pound. And this year, Bristol takes on the mantle of European Green Capital.

How does this spirit support the creative industries? While we may be the third-largest production centre in the UK (after Manchester), we can't ignore the fact that we are dwarfed by London and the commissioning power centred there. In Bristol, we know we have to punch above our weight.

And we do: we capitalise on the resources available to us. We engage with Creative England, which has one of its largest offices here, and with Creative Skillset, which recognises the growing importance of Bristol to the national landscape. We leverage the talent-pulling power of the BBC, and vice versa.

Indie producers are predatory, a bit piratical and, of course, pragmatic. We seek out the best and boldest people to work with in Bristol University and University of the West of England, the Pervasive Media Studio, Watershed, and the cultural institutions – Bristol Old Vic, Spike Island, St George's and the brilliant Invisible Circus.

Add in the gamers, the explosion in digital companies and, of course, that extraordinarily rounded entity that works across digital, theatrical, TV and advertising, Aardman Animations – and you have the beginnings of a new way of working.

Bristol companies have long been adept at co-production and international sales. Our projects cross the Atlantic to gratifying success. It has not gone unnoticed by government that Bristol's creative industries are growing.

Together with a functioning Local Enterprise Partnership that treats media producers with the respect they deserve for building the region's prosperity, the Government supports and celebrates our success. It also adds real cash to cover some essential costs (I write this from New York, where I am on one of my many trips to see our customers).

But it's not all glowing in the west. It sometimes feels harder to sell a show to a UK broadcaster than to a US network. There is a sense in London that regional producers don't quite get it, and that there is a need to parachute in London-based producers to lead a team here in order to create the feel London-­based commissioners want.

Frankly, it feels patronising. But the customer is always right. So, often, we end up not with "Producer Choice" but with a Londoner's choice. ("Lah, good sir... thank 'ee so much", as we say here in the West Country, dusting the hay from our smocks.)

Icon Films will be 25 years old this year, and we think that starting our company here was a stroke of genius. We came to Bristol because it had a solid TV industry, BBC and ITV hubs, and a nascent indie community, all backed up by world-class facilities and graphics companies.
Together, this meant that the city not only attracted talent but retained it. New companies arrive every year and, with each start-up, we feel the strength of Bristol growing, the talent pool expanding and Icon's opportunities expanding.

We feel part of the city – involved in a huge range of initiatives – training, educational, charitable, cultural and civic. Each engagement with another sector of this great place broadens our horizons and we find more ideas for factual programming. Bring on the next 25 years!

This article  first appeard in RTS Television Dec 23rd 2014

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